Archive for the ‘Walking’ Category

What is it about walking?

23/09/2015 Comments off

Thoreau quotation near cabin site at Walden Pond

Concord, Massachusetts, the birth place of Henry David Thoreau, is a very civilised place these days. When I travelled there from Boston, I had to go to the nearby Walden Pond, the place Thoreau made famous and where he lived the simple life in a cabin for two years. His essay, Walking (1862), is one of the books that faces outward on my book shelf to remind me to delve into the richness of its pages. He comes closest to answering for me the question ‘what is it about walking?’  And he is no champion of civilisation. Rather, he speaks for ‘absolute freedom and wildness’ and not for the merely civil.

Walking, for Thoreau, is above all about entering a wildness where he can recreate himself. It is the wildness of the savage he strives to rediscover. Nature is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours. In this he reminds me of the Irish writer John Millington Synge and his tramples through Wicklow and North Mayo and the Aran Islands.

The most alive is the wildest.

Now for the walking boots.

Brendan Behan, Mayo Football and Jones’ Road

07/09/2015 Comments off
Brendan Behan statue on Royal Canal

Brendan Behan statue on Royal Canal

Some weeks ago, before the most recent heartbreak for the Mayo football team, I reminisced on Jones’ Road, Drumcondra.

As I crossed Binn’s Bridge, Brendan Behan was leaning towards me on the metal bench, seemingly watching my every movement. But it was the blackbird perched beside him on the Royal Canal seat that engaged his attention – the pair seemingly enthralled with each other’s company. The bronze sculpture a signal that I was entering Drumcondra which was an oasis of quiet that Sunday morning. Walkers with ruck sacks headed westward along the canal bank footpath; landscape contractors sprayed the hanging flower baskets on Clonliffe Road; rays of morning sun highlighted the red of rose and rhododendron in neat gardens. Soon I was on Jones’ Road bordering the west boundary of Croke Park, walking up the incline between the stadium’s railway and canal ends. Memories of other Sundays in that place, on that road, inundated me.

I have a love/hate relationship with Jones’ Road and with Drumcondra. Walking towards Croke Park on the third Sunday in September, when Mayo once again contest the All-Ireland Football Final, I have an impression of a place always sunlit, of excited voices, sharp banter, wrangles about ticket,; the scene a mish-mash of green and red mingled with the opposition colours – more often than not the green and gold of Kerry.

Then, the gloomy return journey several hours later. An autumn chill, it seemed, in the evening air. Green and red flags drooping. But what I remember most was the quietness among the Mayo supporters walking, heads bent, braced for the long journey west. Few words.  What was there to say at the hurt of another defeat?

Too young to remember, I was just a toddler in a Mayo village close to the pilgrim road from Ballyhaunis into Knock, when Sean Flanagan – the Mayo Captain from nearby Ballaghaderreen – lifted the Sam Maguire cup sixty-four years ago when Mayo last won the All-Ireland football trophy.  Too young to remember, but soon old enough to hear the talk year after year of the homecoming bonfires that lit the autumn skies across east Mayo  –  in Ballyhaunis, Bohola, Crossmolina and Kiltimagh – to greet the victorious team that September.

It was 38 years before Mayo returned to an All-Ireland Final against Cork in Croke Park. That year, 1989, we had reason to hope, so often enthralled by the sublime feats of Willie Joe Padden as he soared to fetch the ball and it seemed as if he must pierce the clouds with his astonishing leaps.  I was then married to a north Dublin man whose memories of lower Drumcondra are saturated with the boyhood smells of stale milk from the family van on its milk rounds through Drumcondra streets like Whitworth Road and Fitzroy Avenue. By then I was mother to two small sons who were absorbing the city passion for Munster rugby in our Limerick home. The three of them would learn to live with my peculiar addiction to the wearying cause of Mayo football.

In 1996, even if we were missing the blond, tattooed Ciaran McDonald – absent for the summer in America – we converged on Jones’ Road in hope. If only that game with Meath was won on the first outing when the sun still radiated the heat of summer. For the replay, two weeks later, the summer was well and truly over, the days had shortened and we were chilled to the core. The banter with Meath supporters who spoke of their ancestors trading small farms in Mayo for the rich pastures of the Royal County did little to lessen the disappointment. And pain continued to be heaped upon pain for Mayo football supporters into the new millennium.

Surely, if the Mayo team were to win the All Ireland, the spirits of the living and the ghosts of the dead of the County would exult with ecstasy from Swinford to Sydney, from Belmullet to Boston, from Louisburg to London.

Crossing the Royal Canal after such a victory, Brendan Behan would totally  ignore the victorious Mayo supporters and continue to chat to his blackbird. It would make no difference to him at all.

Saving Summer

03/09/2013 Comments off

West Clare August HedgerowSaving Summer
I always linger when I reach Querrin crossroads in west Clare to look down on the waters of the Shannon Estuary. It is just a few minutes to the pier from where I can gaze across to Scattery Island and its sturdy round tower. In August, the road between crossroads and pier is a medley of startling colour: orange-reds, shades of purple, gentle creams and delicate pinks blaze out and shock the eye. When I drive this road at night the car headlights stoke the hedgerows and it feels like I am moving through walls of fire such is the sparkle and flicker on either side of the car.
I am pleased with myself that this year I can name the individual plants which make up this lavish hedgerow foliage. Pride of place goes to montbretia with its drooping leaves and rust blossoms that lord it over all other vegetation like a tall, long-legged red-head drifting through a crowd. The purple loosestrife with its downy bloom gives the montbretia a run for its money with height and pervasiveness. The pale willow fern and buttery meadow sweet bring some calm to this superabundance of colour, while the discreet blackberry petals herald an autumn of fruit abundance.
This year I have impressed family and friends alike with my ability to identify the flora and plants of the Loop Head peninsula: the wild thyme at Ross, rock sapphire on the rocky shore, wild carrot at Rhynvella Beach, and sea pinks on the Loop Head moors. After astonishing my visitors with my knowledge, I let them in on my secret in the form of Carmel Madigan’s wonderful book The Wild Flowers of Loophead. A daughter of the peninsula – her family have farmed at the Bridges of Ross for over three hundred years – Carmel set out in the summer of 2007 with her young son James to record the plant life of Loop Head armed with pen and paper, camera, magnifying glass and books. The result is a nature tour of the peninsula’s moorland, beaches, verges and hedgerows through the seasonal changes, as Carmel uncovers the raw wild life of the Atlantic-washed landscape. The book is an amalgam of prose, maps, photographs, botanical references, poems, and Carmel’s own art work inspired by the area. Most of all, the wealth of detail allows me and others to identify, name and appreciate the natural bounty of the gem that is the west Clare landscape.
In recent weeks, on one of the wettest days of the summer, I took myself to Carmel’s Hedge School in a cottage at Kilballyowen in the village of Cross on the R487 that leads to the tip of Loop Head. I am booked into the half-day workshop on ‘Saving the Hedgerows’ which, I have been told, will introduce participants to methods of saving the produce of the local hedgerows ‘for decorative, fragrant, cosmetic and consumption uses’.
We get through the introductions with a cup of fresh-leaf herbal tea brewed in several of Carmel’s wonderful tea-pot collection. We select from a variety of tea combinations made from wild mint, marsh mallow, plantain, silverweed and rose petal. The oven is turned on low and more fresh leaves are being slowly dried over many hours; tied bunches of montbretia, loose strife and honeysuckle hang from the ceiling. Out the window I can vaguely see the Atlantic waters through the thick mist. There are hand-painted jars packed with dried herbs dotted around the studio, and Carmel’s luminous paintings adorn the walls.
For a start we tackle the making of a tincture which, I learn, is a concentrated herbal extract made from alcohol and herbs. Assorted local plants are already gathered. At one stage Carmel darts out into the garden and returns with plantain leaves – a great antiseptic compress, she tells us, if pressed against a sting, bite or wound. The herb collection is washed, towel dried and chopped, then packed into jars and immersed in alcohol. Left for two weeks to steep, the alcohol draws out essential plant compounds and nutrients. Carmel has some herbs that have already been alcohol-saturate and she strains this mixture through a muslin cloth across a sieve, pressing the herbs to extract all juices. She pours this liquid into small dark tincture bottles and we apply labels. Before leaving we will have another cup of herbal tea made with this rich tincture.
Most fascinating is the creation of ointments from oils already infused with extract from plants such as plantain, calendula and St John’s Wort. Bee’s wax is added to the oils and slowly blended over low heat until the liquid starts to solidify. We finish the workshop with a round-table group effort crumbling dried flowers and foliage into a pot pourri. Fragrances rise from meadowsweet, purple loosestrife, tufted vetch, pink bistort, montbretia, wild mint and Japanese rose. We pull leaves from stems, crumble petals, chat, raise fistfuls of pourri to nostrils and inhale the assorted aromas.
Each of us leaves with a bag of goodies: a hand-painted memory jar packed with aromatic pot pourri; a pot of seamay weed and yarrow ointment; a tiny bottle of marsh mallow tincture with a suggestion that a few drops will make a delicious tea combined with wild mint and blackberry. We all promise to return and sample some of the other Hedge School offerings like the rocky shore exploration or the rugged way walk at the Goleen on the Atlantic coast near Tullig Point.
Holidays over I set out for home, pausing at Querrin crossroads to look back at the still glowing montbretia above the Shannon Estuary waters. The hedgerow fires will be extinguished when I return to this place. There is solace, however, in the thought that my luggage contains jars and containers that have captured some of the essence of the hedgerows I am leaving behind. These, I know, will cheer me through long winter months.

Loop Head: My Half Dozen List

28/05/2013 1 comment

Loop Head

Great to see Loop Head coming out tops in the Irish Times best place to holiday in Ireland competition. I have been visiting there for over a decade and it has grown on me year after year. Just last week I walked at the water’s edge around the light house to the sound of the kittiwakes and the ground awash with sea pinks. Here is my Loop Head list of favourite things to do:

  • Visit the light house at the tip on the peninsula and do a circular walk around it at the sea’s edge.
  • Enjoy sea food from Carigaholt; purchase it fresh at SeaLyons down towards the pier or enjoy it cooked at the Long Dock restaurant.
  • Take a boat trip to Scattery Island and tour its monastic settlements.
  • Take the cliff walk in Kilkee and have a coffee afterwards at The Pantry on the  main street.
  • Walk the spit at Querrin and enjoy the wonderful montbretia from Querrin Cross to  the pier in late summer.
  • Get a copy of Carmel Madigan’s The Wild Flowers of Loop Head to  open your eyes to the all-year round wonders of the west Clare landscape.

Guided Around The Great Western Greenway

14/02/2013 Comments off

The Great Western Greenway

Iris Galloway, in her guide to the The Great Western Greenway – ‘the longest off-road walking and cycling trail in Ireland’ – expresses the hope that her book will enhance the experience of this unique trail for walkers and cyclists. She succeeds admirably in her aim by welding together history, folklore, rich information on the biodiversity of the area, and practical advice for the visitor. All of this is capped off by the stunning visual production comprising archival photographs, vibrant maps and superb contemporary colour photography. The Greenway, of course, is situated on the tracks of the former Midland Great Western Railway line, the seven-decade history of which is book ended with tragedy.  We get an overview of this history, alongside rich and sometimes humorous anecdotes about the railway, and vivid detail on the railway line infrastructure as well as the natural life along the trail. There is detailed information on each of the three section of the trail from Westport to Newport, to Mulranny, to Achill Island. Head for the Greenway with this wonderful book to hand.

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